Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory

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The Millions Interview: Joe Meno

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Joe Meno’s most recent novel, The Great Perhaps, is a beautiful and entertaining tragicomedy about the Casper family: scientists Jonathan and Madeline, their complicated teenage daughters, Amelia and Thisbe, and Jonathan’s father, Henry, who is willing himself to disappear, speaking fewer and fewer words each day. Meno is the author of four other novels, including Hairstyles of the Damned, and his most recent story collection, Demons in the Spring, was a finalist for the fifth annual Story Prize.The Millions: I had this sensation when reading The Great Perhaps that its form was continually unfolding and revealing itself to me. For instance, we’ve got an elevated third person narrator that also manages to swoop deeply into various characters’ perspectives; we’ve got short narratives about various Casper ancestors; we’ve got Jonathan’s father Henry writing letters to himself about his past – and so on. This sensation of formal evolution was exhilarating, perhaps because it never felt inaccessible. Did you plan to write a book that shifts in these formal ways? And why these particular narrative choices?Joe Meno: When I first started writing the book I had no idea what it was about or how to tell it, other than I wanted to try and tell the story of a family in the weeks leading up to the 2004 election. After I finished the first draft, I realized the book was about complexity, and the need for it, and how terrified we, as Americans, seemed to have become of anything complicated or uncertain. As I started rewriting and organizing the book I realized that in order to get to the complexity of the character’s lives, I would need a structure that was also complex, so I started using different forms for each character as a way to develop who they were – Jonathan, a paleontologist, has various abstracts from his published scientific journals, his wife, Madeline, an animal behaviorist, has her chapters structured like field notes, their daughter Amelia, a budding Marxist, has excerpts from her angry anti-capitalist rants in the school newspaper, their other daughter, Thisbe, has these very violent prayers she has made up, and their grandfather, Henry, has these letters he writes to himself as a way to rid himself of his connections to the past.TM: There’s a notion in your novel that cowardice and failure can be inherited. Do you think the book supports or disproves this theory – or does it do both?JM: Actually, I did a lot of research looking at the theories concerning the heredity of personality traits, and there’s a lot of evidence that our behaviors are not only influenced by role models like our parents, but also by the genes they pass on through these structures called epigenes, which is fascinating and also really, really horrifying. I think, in the end, that all humans, who on some basic level are all genetically related, have the very real potential for stunning acts of cowardice, and at the same time, the possibility for kindness and bravery. When you think about the last eight years of our country’s history, you can see obvious examples of both, oftentimes committed by the very same people. The characters in the book all prove they are affected by a real sense of fear, and by the end of the novel, they all have a chance to face their cowardice, which in their own way, all of them do.TM: There’s also a theme of familial roles in the book, and for the Casper family, a pattern of going outside of their prescribed boundaries. For instance, Madeline decides to tell her eldest daughter, Amelia, about a sexual moment with a work colleague, and, at one point, Amelia goes to watch Jonathan teach because she longs to see him as a professor rather than as a father. I wonder, starting out, what your notions of this particular family’s traumas and dysfunction were. Did these characters change as you wrote them?JM: I think one of the reasons the family in the book is so unhappy is that each of them, in their own way, has decided that there is one thing in life that will help them understand everything – for Jonathan, it’s this squid, which he thinks if it can be found, will help prove the theory of evolution. There’s Madeline and her ideas about social dominance, and Amelia and Marxist politics, and Thisbe and her troubling sense of religion, and Henry, who is trying as hard as he can to escape the complications of history. It took me a long time and a lot of writing to figure out how they worked on their own, and then together. What becomes apparent is how lonely they are in each other’s company, because they’re all failing to see how none of those perspectives are mutually exclusive, and how we need all of those ways of understanding to make sense of the complexities of the world.TM: The book’s terrific first line, “Anything resembling a cloud will cause Jonathan Casper to faint,” echoes throughout the novel, and I found myself noting each varied cloud reference. For example, Madeline follows a man-shaped cloud, and the younger sister, Thisbe, in an exalted, erotically charged moment with a friend, notes the “cloudless field hanging above them.” Are all these diverse cloud references examples of “a great unknowable entity” as mentioned near the end of the novel? Am I meant to desire a simplicity of metaphor, or symbolism, and not get it? How conscious of the cloud imagery were you as you wrote this book?JM: I think because the book is so expansive and follows five main characters and several centuries in the family’s overall history, I needed something to connect the different family members, and the image of the cloud became the thing that made the most sense. The first line, like the book itself, was definitely influenced by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. In the intro to his book, he discusses how writing an anti-war novel is like writing an anti-glacier novel. For some reason, that idea haunted me: what was it about a glacier? The more I thought about it and the more I wrote the book, the more I realized that what I think he might have meant is that war, like all human conflicts, is unavoidable, it’s part of the way the natural world works, and so it’s inescapable. I used a similar image – a cloud – which is also part of the natural world, and is also pretty impossible to avoid. The other thing about the cloud is that it’s amorphous, ever-changing, unclear, which speaks directly to the way all of the characters see the world in which they’re living. To me, that’s what’s necessary or beautiful about the image: they’re the physical manifestation of the idea of uncertainty or complexity.TM: One of the two epigraphs is by Kurt Vonnegut: ‘One of the great American tragedies is to have participated in a great war.’ The novel takes place in 2004, during the presidential elections, and Madeline in particular is troubled by the war in Iraq. How and why did you work these real current events into the scope of the story?JM: I actually began writing the book thinking directly about the war and then the book grew from there. For me, as I look back over the eight years of the Bush Administration, what most strikes me is how cleverly they used fear over and over again to push forward their agenda, and how, over and over again, we as Americans allowed ourselves to be manipulated by this fear, especially during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and then again during the weeks before the election. Like Madeline, I was completely uncertain about the war in Iraq: I was unsure of whether it was right or wrong, like most of the country at the time, and part of me, I think, was hoping not to have to think about it at all. My recollection is that there was very little debate and with some distance, I feel particularly ashamed of how fearful as a nation we had allowed ourselves to become. Writing the book was a way for me to try and make sense of the choices we made or didn’t make.TM: One of my favorite aspects of your book is the humor and tragedy with which you depict the teenage lives of Thisbe and Amelia. At one point, Thisbe prays, “Dear Lord… let the wire in my bra poke through my heart,” which is just, well, awesome. Are you, in fact, a teenage girl in disguise? How did you get inside these complicated – and very different – young minds?JM: I am not, in fact, a teenage girl. But I am writer which is pretty darn close. Amelia was based somewhat on someone I knew and worked with, at least as a starting point. As I was working on her character, I realized how angry and unappealing she seemed and so I felt like I no choice but to add some humor to temper her rancor. Thisbe, in secret, is kind of my favorite character in the book. Although she is really confused and definitely a kind of zealot, what she really wants is to make sense of her family and herself and her feelings towards Roxie, a classmate. I think she’s a pretty fair example of why evangelical Christianity is so appealing to some, because in the end, it’s based on a search for understanding through love. This is also why it is so insidious and threatening as well. Like Thisbe, trying to oversimplify the world only undercuts what seems so miraculous about life in the first place.TM: And, because this is a book site, I must ask you: What’s the last great book you read?JM: Mickey Hess’ non-fiction masterpiece, Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory. It’s about an assistant professor who’s forced to take all these weird day jobs – ice cream man, house-sitter, actor at a haunted house – while he tries to negotiate the transition from one part of his life to the other.

A Year in Reading: Mickey Hess

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Mickey Hess is an English professor at Rider University and the author of Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory and a bunch of books about hip hop.The best thing I read in 2008 was Richard Brautigan’s Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel. It is one of my favorite books that begin with a sombrero falling to earth from outer space, and it’s one of those books that makes you feel kind of stupid for not having been reading this author all of your life.With the resurgence of interest in Donald Barthelme, people seem to have forgotten his West Coast contemporary, Richard Brautigan, who was doing similar experiments with prose and form out in California. Or it may not be that people have forgotten to include Brautigan among the pantheon of great 20th-century literary experimenters so much as he never really was included.Brautigan had the mixed luck of becoming a countercultural hero and seeing his fame peak too soon. Someone called him the last of the Beats, and his popularity among the hippies (whom truckers hated) led to truck stops not stocking his novels, which led to the literary establishment thumbing its nose at his stories. This is the way it works.Brautigan’s style of humor, while it made him a star among hippies, did not see the same response from the critics as Bartheleme or Kurt Vonnegut, two other writers whom I’d chisel into my literary Mount Rushmore. Critics, for some reason, seemed to think that Brautigan’s writing was something like jacking off.Brautigan jokes about being a hack in his short story “1/3, 1/3, 1/3,” in which a novelist who can’t write teams up with a typist who can’t type and an editor who can’t spell. The story contains one of the best lines ever in a short story: “You sur like veel cutlets don’t you Maybel said she was holding holding her pensil up her mowth.” It ends with the three of them “sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.” Man.Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel was published in 1976, simultaneously in Japan and America. Brautigan dedicates the book to Junichiro Tanizaki, and he draws from the terse prose style and short chapters employed by Tanizaki in The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man. Around this same point in his career, Brautigan wrote novels in a series of different weird genres: a gothic western, an historical romance, and a perverse mystery. They’re all good books, but they don’t all feature sombreros.Sombrero Fallout begins with a sombrero falling from the sky onto the Main Street of a small American town. Then, the very brief chapters alternate between the bizarre story of how the mayor and the townspeople deal with the sombrero (spoiler alert: they kill a librarian), and the heart-wrenching story of an American humorist who has broken up with his Japanese girlfriend, Yukiko.Just as Kurt Vonnegut depicts Kilgore Trout’s gravestone in Breakfast of Champions, Brautigan offers an epitaph for his own alter-ego in Sombrero Fallout. The American humorist was expected to live longer than Brautigan did (he killed himself in 1984, twenty-five years too soon). As 2008 – the year I discovered Richard Brautigan – comes to a close, it seems fitting that he marked this upcoming year as his projected date of death:An American Humorist1934-2009Rest in PeaceHe’s Not Jacking Off AnymoreMore from A Year in Reading 2008

A Year in Reading 2008

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The distractions of a good book have been in high demand this year. A quiet corner and a transporting story offered a reprieve from relentless campaign news not to mention cheap entertainment for the many feeling a sudden impulse for thriftiness. 2008 was a loud year, and this final month seems likely to be only more deafening. The annual shopping frenzy has already ramped up, this year with overtones of desperation and the macabre.Yet in the spirit of the season (though in defiance of the prevailing mood), we offer a month of gifts – collected with the help of many generous friends – to our readers. There will be plenty of lists in the coming days assigning 2008’s best books (and movies and music and everything else you can think of), but it is our opinion that these lists are woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers. As it does with many things in our culture, what we call “the tyranny of the new” holds particularly strong sway over these lists. With books, however, it is different. We are as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago, and a list of the “Best Books of 2008” feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library.Being a reader is about having millions of choices, and a lucky reader has trusted fellow readers as her guides. With this in mind, we’ve asked a number of our favorite readers (and writers and thinkers) to be your guides for the month of December, with each contributor sharing with us the best book(s) they read in 2008, regardless of publication date. And so we present to you our 2008 Year in Reading, a non-denominational advent calendar of reading recommendations to take you through to the end of 2008.We’re doing it a little differently this year. The names 2008 Year in Reading contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post to follow the series from here, you can just load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.Stephen Dodson author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of LanguagehatNam Le author of The BoatBenjamin Kunkel founding editor of N+1 and author of IndecisionRosecrans Baldwin founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me ThereHamilton Leithauser lead singer of The WalkmenMark Binelli author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!Dan Kois founding editor of VultureAmanda Petrusich author of It Still MovesJoseph O’Neill author of NetherlandRex Sorgatz of McCracken author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My ImaginationJoan Silber author of Ideas of Heaven and The Size of the WorldAnder Monson author of Other ElectricitiesDon Lee author of Wrack and RuinTraver Kauffman of Black GarterbeltBuzz Poole author of Madonna of the ToastEdan Lepucki of The MillionsJim Shepard author of Like You’d Understand, AnywayPeter Straub author of seventeen novelsRachel Fershleiser co-editor of Not Quite What I Was PlanningCharles Bock author of Beautiful ChildrenEdward Champion of The Bat Segundo Show and edrants.comHelen Dewitt author of The Last SamuraiManil Suri author of The Age of ShivaCharles D’Ambrosio author of The Dead Fish MuseumChristopher Sorrentino author of TranceWells Tower author of Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedLawrence Hill author of Someone Knows My NameJohn Wray author of LowboyEd Park founding editor of The Believer and author of Personal DaysSarah Manguso author of The Two Kinds of DecayKrin Gabbard author of Hotter Than ThatJosh Henkin author of MatrimonyJosh Bazell author of Beat the ReaperBrian Evenson by The Open CurtainCarolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.comHesh Kestin author of Based on a True StoryScott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and proprietor of Conversational ReadingGarth Risk Hallberg author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The MillionsSana Krasikov author of One More YearSeth Lerer author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s HistoryLorraine López author of The Gifted Gabaldon SistersAnne Landsman author of The Rowing Lesson and The Devil’s ChimneyMark Sarvas author of Harry, Revised and proprietor of The Elegant VariationBrad Gooch author of City PoetKyle Minor author of In the Devil’s TerritoryChristine Schutt author of Florida and All SoulsTodd Zuniga founding editor of Opium MagazineDavid Heatley author of My Brain is Hanging Upside DownV.V. Ganeshananthan author of Love MarriageFrances de Pontes Peebles author of The SeamstressLaura Miller cofounder of author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in NarniaDustin Long author of IcelanderMaria Semple author of This One is MineRob Gifford of NPR, author of China RoadJohn Dufresne author of Requiem, MassMatthew Rohrer author of Rise UpMickey Hess author of Big Wheel at the Cracker FactoryGregory Rodriguez author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and VagabondsDavid Ebershoff author of The 19th WifeTim W. Brown author of Walking ManPablo De Santis author of The Paris EnigmaHugo Hamilton author of DisguiseJoshua Furst author of The Sabotage CafeKevin Hartnett of The MillionsRoland Kelts author of JapanamericaNikil Saval assistant editor at n+1The Year in Reading RecapBonus Links: A Year in Reading 2007, 2006, 2005

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